Maple Leafs Game 4 Notes: Why we should’ve seen Marner’s blocks coming

Joe Bowen joins the Jeff Blair Show to discuss Mitch Marner’s ability to elevate his game when the Leafs need it most.

TORONTO – Ahead of Wednesday’s pivotal fourth game in this fierce showdown between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, the former looking for a 3-1 stranglehold, there is a sense of opportunity.

With the Tampa Bay Lightning shockingly getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday night, you’re now looking at the final two clubs standing in the Atlantic.

Meetings were called, adjustments have been made, and new players are drawing in.

Here are seven things to know ahead of Game 4.

That’s what dentists are for

Much was made — and rightly so — about the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer and most dynamic offensive threat going full starfish to block a pair of David Pastrnak shots to seal Game 3. Although Mitch Marner sloughed off the heroic nature of his face-first defence — “There’s dentists for a reason,” he quipped, like a champ — his whatever-it-takes approach is still rippling through the room.

“Probably one of the top-skilled guys in the league, so when you see guys putting their body on the line like that to give us wins, that kinda pushes the guys with not as much skill,” Travis Dermott said. “Maybe they should be doing the same — if not more.”

For those just tuning in, this is no one-off.

The winger’s team-first, body-last approach didn’t come out of nowhere.

Most pointedly, Marner foreshadowed his willingness to block shots when he had a team-high three stingers in the critical stage of the Leafs’ 3-2 home win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 2.

Team sage Patrick Marleau used Marner’s effort as a call-out two months ago.

“We’re gonna need a lot of that going forward,” Marleau predicted that night. “To see him put his body on the line makes you look yourself in the mirror. Everybody should take a look. Take a page out of his book and make sure we get in lanes.”

Garret Sparks was in net that evening, but Frederik Andersen took note from the bench, and was excited to talk about it the following day.

“Players are much less protected than me and Garret are, so it’s much appreciated when you see guys like that laying out and risking their bodies to help the greater good,” Andersen said.

“It proves you need everyone to block shots. You need everyone to buy in. It takes a lot to pay the price. It’s something I see us doing more and more. That’s what good teams do — they buy in to the game and they’re willing to sacrifice.”

The Leafs have instructed their defenders when and where to block and when to get out of the way, but Andersen, understandably, wants to avoid details.

“[Shot blocking] is definitely part of the league now and the way the game’s played, because guys are so good at shooting now. You have to help each other out to make it a little easier on the goalie,” Andersen said. “A good shot block can lead to offence, too. You want to minimize their opportunities to score.”

Side note: Marner appreciates that a certain Toronto FC forward has his back when it comes to stirring his ice cream to smooth, delicious consistency.

“I saw [Jozy] Altidore said that he does the same thing,” Marner said, “so I’m not the only one who does it.”

Kadri adjusts to suspension life

When Babcock noticed no one was leading Toronto’s centre-ice stretch circle on Tuesday, the coach hollered, “Naz, get in there!”

Kadri obliged.

He also had to finish practice late and winded, getting bag-skating with the black aces.

Morgan Rielly believes it’s important Kadri remains an integral part of the journey despite being unavailable until either Round 2 or October.

“He’s been a big part of our team. He brings energy, he’s a big part of practice, and it’s important he stays ready,” Rielly says.

The Maple Leafs have decided to shield Kadri from the media until the series wraps, so he has yet to speak publicly on his actions in Game 2.

Also: We loved Kadri’s reaction in the players’ box as he watched Andreas Johnsson score the Game 3 winner from Kadri’s usual spot in the middle of the top power-play unit.

Johnsson thrives in Kadri’s power-play spot

Johnsson both scored a nifty backhand winner and set up Auston Matthews’ only goal of the series as he subbed in for Kadri as the man in the middle on the top PP unit.

“Quick brain, quick hands and tenacious. He gets pucks back,” Babcock explains the decision. “The man in the middle of the power play, you can’t be one and done. You’ve got to get the puck back a ton.”

In Sweden and with the AHL Marlies, Johnsson had grown accustomed to patrolling the circles and firing one-timers or set up teammates.

“You’re more a support guy. On the flank, you get the puck more and you make more plays. That’s the difference,” Johnsson said. “It’s power play. Whatever role you have, you take it and try to make the best.”

Tavares is Babcock’s poster boy for time management

The Maple Leafs are placing an emphasis on shift length, meaning keep ’em short.

John Tavares is averaging 43.7 seconds per shift in this series, which is where the coach wants his forwards to be. (By comparison, Matthews is at 49.6 seconds.)

“I just look at their shifts and how many shifts they had and did they go long enough,” explains Babcock, forever pushing the pace.

“Our game, the way it is, if you play too long, you’re building up lactic acid and you can’t perform at the highest level. In order to play defence, you’ve got to be fresh. He’s done a real good job of that.”

Sports science! Quick shifts!

Bruins getting healthy, tweaking attack

Expect both winger Marcus Johansson (ill) and defenceman John Moore (upper body) to draw back into Boston’s lineup Wednesday, replacing Karson Kuhlman and Steven Kampfer.

Third-liner Johansson, a significant deadline rental, has been keeping his distance from teammates since Game 1, lest he spread whatever was ailing him.

Moore, meanwhile, has not played since March 25 in Tampa Bay.

The Bruins’ mighty top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Pastrnak held a private meeting with assistant coach Jay Pandolfo on the off-day — something they do every three weeks or so during the season — to discuss solving the Leafs’ Shutdown 5.

“This isn’t some five-alarm meeting with them,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s a simple revisiting basics, what can we do against Toronto that’s playing them hard, to help them create a little offence.

“They like structure, they crave it, and then they add that to their creativity, and off they go.”

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Battle of the 3Cs

Meanwhile, Babcock set aside time Tuesday to pore over some select video clips with William Nylander, his third-line centre substitute for Kadri.

Positive reinforcement: Toronto wanted to show Nylander highlights of the things he did right in his own zone, in hopes he can build of that.

“We need him to really commit defensively — that’s a way different job than being a winger,” Babcock said. “To have success, he’s got to be good without the puck.”

Nylander’s foil in the matchup, Boston 3C Charlie Coyle, failed to register a point in last spring’s playoffs with the Wild. He now has goals in back-to-back games and, with Kadri gone, wants to exploit the inexperience now staring across from him.

“It’s a little out of sorts, so it’s up to us to take advantage of that,” Coyle said. “We need some more in-zone time and pressure on their D.”

Rielly’s minutes flying through the roof

Although Babcock favours Muzzin-Zaitsev against Boston’s top line, Rielly is not lacking for usage.

The No. 1 defenceman logged 27:58 in Monday’s win, marking his second-busiest night all year (he played 28:16 on Feb. 1 versus Detroit).

Rielly says he feels great, and he’s putting emphasis on rest and recovery during this every-other-day schedule.

Babcock considered Rielly’s use to that of workhorses past.

“No one glided any better than Nick Lidstrom or played any simpler. Plus, he didn’t race around the rink. Morgan does more of that racing around the rink, so he probably puts more miles on himself that way,” the coach said.

Again, shift length is helping Rielly’s endurance. The busiest man in the series (25:28 average time on ice) ranks just 12th overall in playoff ice time but he and parter Ron Hainsey rate one-two in number of shifts (35 and 34, respectively).

“That’s a lot of time on the ice,” Muzzin marvelled. “Obviously, he’s an efficient skater, he’s smooth, which allows him to coast around. It’s effortless, it looks like. He’s reliable in the D-zone and he creates offence, so, he’s a complete package. We need him to do that every night. He’s done it.”

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